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The Heavily Armed Wing Loong 3 Is For Export

November 15, 2022
Via Chinese state media.

The recent Air Show China 2022 that lasted from November 8 to 13 at its usual venue in Zhuhai has taken on a militaristic bent. This became unmistakable after the long pause between 2018 and 2021 when the civilian aspect of the show retreated to the background and media coverage over-emphasized the big military-industrial enterprises that were participating. The aerospace giant AVIC even topped its previous outing with a brand new combat drone: the Wing Loong 3 or Wing Loong-3. A stationary model was at the center of its indoor pavilion loaded with missiles and bombs.

Below the Wing Loong 3 were smaller mock ups of AVIC’s other medium and high altitude combat drones, including another Wing Loong 3, this time its hardpoints carried 16 air-to-ground missiles in total. It could have been a subtle dig at its American rival the General Atomics Mojave unveiled in 2021–it represented a deep enhancement of the US Army’s older Gray Eagles. Part of the Mojave concept included arming it wing 16 Hellfire missiles. The Wing Loong “family” being an export success the Wing Loong 3’s impressive payload is an obvious pitch to eager clients rather than to the Chinese military, whose different branches now have too many drones entering service.

It helps the reader to be presented the Wing Loongs in their current variants. The earliest Wing Loong had a modest payload of just two hardpoints; its sibling the Wing Loong 2 was a 360-degree improvement that had six hardpoints and impressive endurance and flight range (variants are the 2D, 2H, and 2Y); the Wing Loong 3 is even more extreme in the same characteristics with eight hardpoints on its wings and another hardpoint on its belly. As a further incentive for potential end users, AVIC introduced the Wing Loong 1E, which had many of the Wing Loong 2’s external features, in 2022 as an attempt to broaden its catalog. The Wing Loong 10, previously known as the Cloud Shadow, is now embraced by the PLA and government agencies (variants are the 10A and 10B). Unlike its predecessors the Wing Loong 10 is powered by two small jet engines and performs a variety of non-combat roles.

A curious aspect of the surge in Asian combat drone production is China has eclipsed its neighbors with mature aerospace industries that have access to the same global supply chains. This contrast is quite damning when Russia’s uneven progress is examined. But neither Japan nor South Korea have accomplished anything of note despite the technological base and low costs available to them. For this reason, in East Asia at least, the Wing Loong 3 has no competitors. But the same doesn’t apply to other regions where combat drones are flourishing. Iran and Turkiye each have new combat drones that have maximal performance characteristics. With Iran it’s the twin-boom Fotros and the Gaza that represent new benchmarks in endurance, firepower, and range. With Turkiye it’s the TAI Aksungur, also a very large twin-boom model, and its rival the Baykar Akinci.

China, Iran, and Turkiye are all competing for their slice of a global market where the US has too many self-imposed constraints and some big players–think of France and the UK–have no stake whatsoever. This means “air power” as it was understood in the late 20th century–driven by the idea of acquiring premium multirole fighters–is being turned on its head when affordable combat drones and their ordnance are in greater abundance than ever before. As combat drones keep evolving and their prices remain low compared to legacy attack and fighter aircraft many countries are spoiled for options. There are actually two dangerous examples of this happening right now; both Azerbaijan and Pakistan are bolstering their “legacy” air forces while picking the best drones their money can buy. This is on top of homegrown efforts to build their own combat drones. Not to mention both Azerbaijan and Pakistan could become embroiled in their separate wars sooner rather than later. Localized air power is now in every military’s grasp as long as they have the will and the means.

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